Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Where to Live in Troubled Times


As various parts of the world collapse, one big question is, "Should I start packing my bags?" There is probably no perfectly rational way for choosing a place to live. Nevertheless, if we are brave enough, or if we have already done some travelling, the factors listed below may be those we want to consider. Unfortunately the travel brochures and retirement advertising give an impression of the "tropical paradise" that is not always realistic, and we must therefore also look at this matter further on -- the ideal country might not be what we first imagine.

By far the largest issue is that of time frame. The systemic collapse of modern civilization will consist, as I have said before, of two distinct phases, and the border between the two will be marked by the disappearance of money as a means of exchange. Each phase will entail separate considerations.

During Phase One, governments, law, and money will still exist in roughly their present forms, and these will be some of the matters to consider in choosing a place to live. What I am listing below as the issues of economic stability -- cost of living and average income -- are therefore relevant to Phase One. Even during that first period, however, the longer-term issues of arable land, climate, and family and friends will be very important.

Phase Two will be that in which societal collapse has advanced further. At that point it is unlikely that people will be concerned about the finer points of pension schemes or tax shelters. The list of qualities to consider in a place to live will then be much shorter, and the trivial will be discarded.

We should remember that the readily available information on other countries is mainly geared to tourists, but what such people experience on a 10-day package tour bears little resemblance to long-term residence in a country. Most tourists live in a silly and artificial world, and their lives are not entwined with those of the local people. In fact tourists are often hated because they regard other countries as their personal playground, and the citizens of that country as their servants.

Population Density

The tropical paradise can be deceptive. Thailand, for example, has positive and negative aspects. Perhaps in the more rural areas of that country it would be possible to live fairly cheaply. Public transport is usually available, at least for now, so a car might not be necessary. There would be no need for heating fuel or firewood in winter. Food would be cheap and good. But Thailand in general can be quite unpleasant because of its heat, and to some extent because of problems with noise, with environmental destruction, and with overpopulation.

The issue of overcrowding, in Thailand and elsewhere, must also be considered in terms of other issues of societal collapse. If, in the future, the world economy has a "bang" that is much worse than the one that started in 2007, I think I would want to be living in a country that has a good deal of uninhabited and undeveloped land where I could be somewhat independent of a money-based economy. In plain English, wherever I live I want to be able to head for the hills. For the same reason, I have no intention of living in a big city.

One thing is certain: without motorized transportation, the crowding in the world's cities will ensure that they eventually become death traps. Modern business methods only intensify the weakness: while business-management experts take pride in the cost-effectiveness of "just in time" inventory, they ignore the fact that "just in time" is only a step away from "just out of time." During the Second World War, Leningrad turned to cannibalism when the city was besieged by the Germans, and such events were far more common in ancient times.

Population per Unit of Arable Land

More important than population density in the absolute sense is the ratio of population to the amount of land that can be used to produce crops. Eventually most people will be producing their own food, or at least relying on food grown nearby. A society based mainly on primitive subsistence farming (survival gardening) can have, at the very most, no more than nine people per hectare of arable land (i.e., 900 people per km2) and many countries are already well over that density; a more realistic ratio would be 400 people per km2. A major question therefore is: Which countries have a fair amount of arable land?

The following 30 countries (in rank order) have the best ratios: Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Niger, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Argentina, Guyana, the US, Belarus, Hungary, Zambia, Paraguay, Bulgaria, the Central African Republic, Togo, Turkmenistan, Sudan, Moldova, Finland, Romania, Denmark, Estonia, Mongolia, Namibia, Uruguay, Mali, and Chad. Roughly speaking, the worst areas for this ratio are the Middle East, most of southern and eastern Asia, the islands of the Pacific, and Western Europe.

In terms of agriculture, there are also related factors to consider, such as temperature, precipitation, and soil degradation. Of the 30 countries listed above, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Namibia, Mali, and Chad are quite dry. Most of central and eastern Europe has serious problems of soil degradation, but these areas should not necessarily be discounted. Partly because of emigration, they have shrinking population, for example, and that will be an advantage to those who remain.

One might be tempted to suggest a sour-grapes theory of the population-to-arable ratio: one could argue that countries with better ratios are merely indicating poor living conditions of some other sort, such as bad politics or economic troubles. To a large extent this is true, but there are important exceptions. The UK and the Republic of Ireland, for example, are very similar in geographic respects, but the UK has three times the population-to-arable ratio; from the standpoint of subsistence farming, the Republic of Ireland would be a far more habitable country.

From my own point of view, good-quality arable land is the most important consideration, either for the sake of growing one's own food, or at least for being close to an area where food is produced and distributed. Political matters are perhaps in second place, while everything else would be far down the list. Nevertheless, I can see how other people would have other priorities.

Climate

To some extent the choice of climate is rather a personal matter, depending on what one is used to. Extremes of climate, however, mean that life could become uncomfortable without our accustomed access to central heating or air conditioning. One would ideally be living about halfway between the equator and the poles, but the catch is that many other people have already had the same idea.

Economic Stability

Economic stability depends on a number of diverse factors. Countries that rely heavily on exports can be quickly damaged by changes in the world market. A small country is generally in trouble if its income is based on a narrow range of goods or services. Excessive private and public borrowing often leads to debts that cannot be paid. Monoculture and foreign ownership have ruined many countries, even if the facts are rarely printed in newspapers. Modern economics is a complex subject, and when disaster occurs it seems that no one even knows who to blame.

Cost of Living

The cost of living in a foreign country is obviously important, especially for people who hope to have jobs there, but also if they have fixed incomes, or just fixed savings. The odd thing, though, is that the cost of living doesn't really vary all that much from one country to another, contrary to popular belief. A hamburger is always a hamburger, it seems. The cost of living in Moscow is three times as high as in Asuncion, Paraguay, but generally the cost of an item in one country will be about the same as its cost in another country. Life out in the countryside may be cheaper, but not greatly, and only relatively: there are no more rural paradises where goods and services can be bought for pennies. More important than the immediate cost of living, of course, is the country's rate of price inflation, which can easily make a dent in income or savings, particularly as the entire world shifts into what I have been calling the economic post-peak Phase One, which is characterized by "stagflation": stagnant wages combined with price inflation. In any case, the best way of dealing with the cost of living in any country is, quite simply, to reduce one's dependence on money by learning to grow food and do carpentry and so on.

Median Income

Average income (commonly expressed as GDP/capita) is a serious issue for anyone planning to get a job in a distant country and expecting to be paid a local salary. Average income is also a consideration for anyone planning to hire local workers. However, any figure for average income is meaningless unless it is correlated with cost of living, and if both are defined in terms of international dollars or some other universal frame of reference. Making sense of such figures is not always easy. On top of all that, the focus on GDP/capita falsely implies that societies without a money economy are necessarily poor, whereas abundant food and water, for example, are themselves a form of wealth.

There is not a great deal of correlation between a country's cost of living and its average income. There is, however, some tendency for countries with high costs of living to have incomes that are even more unusually high. In a poor country such as Malawi, for example, both the cost of living and the average income are low; in Luxembourg, on the other hand, while the cost of living is somewhat high, the average income is quite remarkable. One reason why people like to move to the US is that the fairly high cost of living is offset by the very-high average income. Most countries in Europe, on the other hand, present a bad combination of both high cost of living and low average income.

Crime Rates

For those dreaming of escape to distant places, the unfortunate irony is that cheap property and high crime rates often go together. That's true street-by-street, but also country-by-country. It's hard to beat the odds on that one, but perhaps it can be done. And by high crime rates I don't necessarily mean organized crime. A more common question may be the far more subtle issue of whether one will have as neighbours a group of people who persist in minor acts of theft and similar infractions -- what is euphemistically referred to as "having an uneasy relationship with the law." Even borderline illegalities can ultimately become heartbreaking for the victims.

Political Freedom

There are many countries where the concept of civil liberty is completely absent. In fact there are many other big political issues that should be considered: political equality, democracy, the whole concept of "the open society." One should not underestimate the pleasures of living in a country with a relatively sane form of government -- at least for as long as governments last.

Political corruption is a situation in which every day is pervaded by the question of who you know. Although there may be laws and regulations, from the federal to the institutional level, the actual decisions get made, sometimes in secret, on the basis of who has informal power over whom. Daily life is controlled by "families" and petty "mafias," without the guns and glamour of their Hollywood counterparts. There are many forms of corruption, including cronyism (favouritism toward friends), nepotism (favouritism toward family members), bribery, embezzlement, graft, influence peddling, patronage (not always illicit), kickbacks, and electoral fraud. To a large extent corruption is correlated -- both as cause and as effect -- with poverty, illiteracy, lack of democracy, and lack of freedom of speech and of the press. From the point of view of retirement, perhaps the biggest question about a corrupt country is: What will happen to your bank account after the next palace revolution?

Immigration Laws

Many countries have laws stating that foreigners cannot retire there permanently unless they offer proof of a guaranteed monthly income, a lump-sum deposit, or an investment of some sort. Having family members already living in the country is an advantage. For those who intend to keep working for a living, having a high-demand profession can make a big difference. Sometimes such laws are rather vague and open to varying interpretation, and getting an application processed may be complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Within the European Union, it's generally easy for citizens of one country to move to another, but the even there the rules are somewhat variable and subject to change.

There are certainly exceptions, but in general it might be said that immigration laws are getting tighter these days. It's no longer a case of picking a place on a map and packing a suitcase. Most governments are realizing that immigration is often not beneficial to a country. There are far too many people in the world, and most of the blank spaces on the map are not really habitable.

Language

Learning another country's language does not require mental ability, only opportunity (e.g., living there) and determination. Making an effort to learn some of the local language is a good way to make life in a new country more comfortable. Learning a few words of a language, in fact, is one of the principal means of becoming accepted in any society. But obviously the language of the country, or (on the other hand) the likelihood of encountering people who speak one's own language, will have many effects on one's daily life.

Friends and Family

Determined loners may be exceptions, but most people would want to consider the choices or necessities of any family members or close friends. If these people are also willing to move, so much the better. If they cannot or will not move, then one's own choices may be restricted. In any case, it may simply be safer to stay in the old, familiar locality, living next to people one has known for years. Even if they are not perfect, it is at least possible to have an idea of what can be can expected from them, whereas strangers in a distant land may offer too many unpleasant surprises.

Ultimately it may be impossible to give up one's present social network. Homesickness can be truly crippling, although those who have previously led a nomadic life may have developed emotional strengths. The move itself can be painful. Besides the emotional strain of travelling to a distant land, there is the problem of selling most of one's possessions before moving to another country, and then buying replacement possessions upon arrival -- and perhaps giving up two years later and moving back home again. Sometimes a little perseverance can solve or prevent such problems.

Going Native

In poorer countries, attempting to copy the way of life of the natives is not a good idea. For example, it is commonly said that a westerner cannot really live comfortably in Thailand for less than about $10,000 a year, and that's the minimum. Most native workers there, on the other hand, live on about $2,000 a year. What it amounts to is that westerners in Thailand would go mad if they tried to live the arduous life that is lived by most natives. Native life in modern times is really just manual labour at starvation wages. If a foreigner moves to a "tropical paradise" at 60 years of age, then to go native that person would have to start by being dead for the previous 20 years because the native would be dead by age 40.

I would say, also, that if it costs $10,000 to live in Thailand, then I would rather live in a modern western country such as Canada, which would probably cost about $15,000 for the same standard of living, but without the disadvantages. In general I have many doubts about putting on shorts and sandals and moving to tropical paradises. I'm sure there are westerners who find such countries pleasant, but my own preference would be for open spaces and a more-northern climate.

So there really is no simple answer to the question of where to live. We must each weigh all of the factors, but the measurements themselves can become a personal or intuitive matter. We always look for evidence that the best country is the one in which we were born. Thoreau said, "Though all the fates should prove unkind, Leave not your native land behind." My own home, Canada, is not entirely native to me; I didn't choose it until age 16, after living in Germany, the UK, and the US. But after so many years in Canada I will always look for reasons for keeping it as my base of operations. That does not mean it is not a land that can be both geographically and economically trying. Similar paradoxes are true for everyone else in every other country.

We should not lightly dismiss the importance of the emotional ties to our native land, even if we have been "native" to such a land for only a few years. In any case, such ties are not entirely irrational. Our reasons for putting down roots in a particular country may be somewhat accidental, but if we examine ourselves more closely we may find that when we have stopped our youthful wanderings there is a curious match between personality and landscape.

We must nevertheless remember that the reluctance to leave can be fatal. History is filled with stories of people who failed to heed warnings. The usual cry is, "It can't happen here. This is a civilized country."

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)